Eighteen suspected illegal migrants died Wednesday when their boat capsized off the Turks and Caicos islands in the Atlantic, the government of the British overseas territory said.
The incident occurred in the early hours of Christmas Day as the boat, which had been intercepted by police, was “being towed into dock” at Providenciales, the government said in a statement.
Thirty-two people were rescued and taken to an immigration detention center, said the statement, which was carried on the Twitter and Facebook accounts of the governor of the territory near the Bahamas.
Search efforts were ongoing, and a US Coast Guard helicopter was “scrambled to assist the TCI authorities in locating any additional bodies,” it said.
The government did not specify the nationality of the victims, but the local Turks and Caicos Sun newspaper said on its website that they were Haitian.
“Police are still searching for the handful of people who reached shore and fled the scene, and their investigations into the incident continue,” the statement said.
The British-dependent island chain is located about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Haiti, and about 550 miles southeast of Miami.
Haiti was already the poorest country in the western hemisphere before a 2010 earthquake, which left 250,000 dead and set the island nation’s limping economy back still further.
Migrants from Haiti often undertake perilous journeys aboard precarious and often overcrowded boats headed for the Bahamas or the United States.
In May 2007, more than 60 migrants were killed when their vessel capsized off Turks and Caicos.
In July 2009, 15 Haitian migrants died and nearly 70 others were never found after a boat carrying up to 200 people struck a reef and capsized off the islands.
Last month, about 30 Haitian migrants died after an overloaded freighter overturned in the Bahamas, the US Coast Guard said. About 110 others were rescued in rough seas.
Stern Lolo, director of Haiti’s National Migration Office, has said the government tries to discourage migrants from taking to the seas through a public information campaign and radio spots, but does not have the means to patrol its own shores.
More than 170,000 Haitians are still living in tents and makeshift housing as the fourth anniversary of the January 2010 quake approaches, at risk of disease and the hurricanes that often batter the island.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]